Audio News for August 19 to August 25, 2012


Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Pettigrew and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news from August 19th to August 25th, 2012.


“Curses!”  Roman “bad spell” table found in England


In our first story from East Farleigh, England, archaeologists may have discovered why Sacratus, Constitutus or Memorianus had bad luck in Roman Kent: The Maidstone Area Archaeological Group Archaeologist has unearthed an ancient Roman curse tablet made of lead and buried in a farmstead.  

Inscribed in capital letters are the names of 14 people.  Scientists believe British Romans used it to cast spells on people accused of theft and other misdeeds.  Measuring 6 by 10 centimeters and 1 millimeter thick, the tablet is extremely fragile.  

The creators of the tablets rolled them up to conceal their inscriptions, then hid them in places considered to be close to the underworld, such as graves, springs or wells.  

Dr. Roger Tomlin, lecturer in late Roman history at Wolfson College, Oxford, and an authority on Roman inscriptions, says dating the tablet is difficult, but he believes it belongs to the Third Century AD.  

The tablet's significance also lies in the fact that Romans were the first inhabitants of Britain who could read or write.  This means the tablet, along with other similar items, are among the earliest written records of British life.  

Only six of the 14 names on the tablet are legible.  The Roman names of Sacratus, Constitutus, Constan and Memorianus are visible.  Additionally, there are two Celtic names - Atrectus and Atidenus.  Dr. Tomlin said the eight other names are incomplete, but further cleaning and testing could lead to their transcription.  

School for African-American children located in Colonial Williamsburg


In our next story from the United States, young African-American children in Colonial Williamsburg would have learned reading, writing, religion and manners at the Bray School.  Stepping back in time 250 years you would have seen about 30 black children ages 3 to 10 lining up for a day of instruction.  Founded in 1760 by the College of William and Mary and an Anglo-American missionary group whose trustees included Benjamin Franklin, the pioneering Bray School touched the lives of several hundred young blacks over its 14 years, helping give Williamsburg a population of slaves and freemen who were unusually literate.  

Now archaeologists from Colonial Williamsburg and the college are probing the yard around Brown Hall looking for evidence of its presence.  Among their discoveries is a brick-lined well that may have provided the students with water.  They've also unearthed signs of a post-in-ground structure that may have served as their kitchen.  

Equally evocative are slate pencils and marbles. Though stripped of their original context and therefore of no value in proving any link to the school's past, they still tell of a world inhabited by children.  

Beginning in late May with ground-penetrating radar, the students of the William and Mary-Colonial Williamsburg summer field school have probed more than 16 inches below the surface in the south yard, uncovering first the rise and falls of rows in a 1920s field and then the colonial occupation layer.  According to Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist Mark Kostro, numerous postholes mark the footprint of a post-in-ground outbuilding that may date to the Bray School period.  However, the scatter of 1700s slate pencils and marbles comes from such a roiled-up deposit that its reliability as evidence is tainted.  Similar problems have dogged the excavation of the well discovered on the opposite side of the dorm.  

Although the construction methods look correct for the 1700s or 1800s, the widely varied dates of the artifacts found inside have made the exact age hard to pin down.  A planned investigation of a wood-frame structure a block away could shed more light on the exact time period.  Moved from the Brown Hall site in 1930, the building was overlooked until 2011, when William and Mary English professor Terry Meyers discovered evidence that points to the much enlarged, much altered house as the first home of the Bray School.  

Equally important is the new information Meyers found regarding the school's links to the college.  Although most histories credit Franklin's long friendship with Williamsburg postmaster and printer William Hunter as the reason behind his nomination of the town as the site for a new school, Franklin's recommendation specifically notes the support of the college president, too.  Thomas Dawson and his brother, William, who was William and Mary's previous head, had long records of encouraging black education.  Moreover, Franklin met them when he came to receive an honorary degree four years before the foundation of the Bray School.

William and Mary is the first college or university in America to concern itself with educating African-Americans; lessons in reading, writing, needlework, and manners made them more useful and valuable as servants.  Still, the same training that left some blacks better educated than most white colonists had consequences the school's founders didn't intend.  Numerous newspaper ads of the time describe runaways who could read and write and who declared they had the right to be free.


Scottish site reveals Iron Age and Viking settlements


A sandy plain on South Uist [YOU-ist], an island of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, has the remains of a large farmstead, a major Norse settlement and numerous exotic materials such as green marble from Greece, ivory from Greenland and bronze pins from Ireland.  Researchers in this long-term project organized by the universities of Cardiff and Sheffield also found a piece of bone marked with an ogham inscription, an ancient text that arrived in Scotland from Ireland.  

Archaeologists said the items provided a detailed picture of life in the first millennium AD.  Professor Niall Sharples, head of archaeology and conservation at Cardiff, is the editor of a new report on the project published by Oxbow Books.   According to him, Bornais, on the west side of the island, provides the island's best record of settlement activity from the 5th and 6th centuries to the 13th and 14th centuries.  The remains of a wheelhouse date to the late Iron Age, which in this locality means the 5th and 6th centuries.  This type of structure is not unusual, but what is most interesting here is that the house burned down and the inhabitants built a new home over the top of the collapsed roof, preserving the carbonized roof timbers and items on the floor beneath it.  The artifacts from this house included a decorated animal ankle bone, or astragalus, and a bone die pushed into the floor of the rebuilt house.  Researchers think the inhabitants used these in gaming.  The numbers one, three, four, and six mark the die.  Researchers speculate that the home owners may have used the bone and die to try to predict the future.  

Cattle bones found decorating the hearth in the rebuilt house may suggest that the residents hosted a large feast to celebrate the rebuilding.  Between seven and 12 cattle would have been needed to provide the foot bones used, suggesting that whoever occupied the house could afford to lose that number of livestock.  

The Vikings later occupied Bornais, on a site a little distance away from where the Iron Age dwellers had lived.  Clues that a Norse of high status lived in the later settlement include a piece of green marble thought to have been quarried on a Greek island.  Romans used that the same marble as building stones in Rome itself.


Greek poem honoring Nero’s wife deciphered


In our final story, a recently deciphered ancient Greek poem on a papyryus document discovered more than a century ago in Egypt deifies Poppaea Sabina, the wife of the infamous Roman emperor Nero, and shows her ascending to the stars.  Based on the lettering styles and other factors, scholars believe a poet created the ode  around 1,800 years ago, nearly 200 years after Nero died.

It’s a mystery why someone so far away from Rome would bother composing or copying it at such a late date.  One possibility is that a poet composed the poem after Poppaea's death, but while Nero was still alive.  Then, over a period of 200 years, the text was popular enough that poets retold it repeatedly until someone in Egypt wrote it down.  

In the poem, Poppaea ascends to heaven and becomes a goddess.  The goddess Aphrodite says to Poppaea, "my child, stop crying and hurry up: with all their heart Zeus' stars welcome you and establish you on the moon." 

Nero was one of the most notorious rulers who ever lived.  Ancient writers say that he killed his own mother, Agrippina, and his first wife, Octavia.  Historians believe he killed Poppaea herself with a kick to her stomach while she was pregnant.  

The well-known line, “Nero fiddles while Rome burns,” is a legendary phrase related to a great fire that ravaged Rome for six days during his reign.  Ancient writers also depict Poppaea herself in a less-than-positive light.  After Nero killed Octavia, historians claim Poppaea received her severed head.  

The newly deciphered poem, however, shows a very different side to this ancient couple.  In the poem, Aphrodite takes Poppaea away and says to her: "your children for Nero, both deceased, you will guard them for eternity."  Poppaea does not want this, wishing to stay with Nero.  The poem reads that she is downcast and does not rejoice because she would be leaving her husband, a man equal to the gods, and she moans loudly from her longing.  

According to Paul Schubert, a professor at the University of Geneva and the lead researcher who worked on the text, the poet is trying to tell us that Poppaea loves her husband and what it implies is that the story about her dying from being kicked cannot be true.

The poem records her ascending to heaven, mentioning all the planets known to the ancients including "the Cyllenaean star" or Mercury, "belt of the Aegis-bearer" or Jupiter and "Rhea's bedfellow” or Saturn.  

The text's deciphering begins in the late 19th Century with excavations at Oxyrhynchus by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt.  During the time that the Romans ruled Egypt, Oxyrhynchus was a sizable town of about 10,000 people located in Upper Egypt.  Among their discoveries, Grenfell and Hunt found hundreds of thousands of papyri in ancient dumps at the site.  Over the past 100 years, scholars have gradually been analyzing, translating and publishing the papyri.  This particular text, along with many of the other papyri, is now at the Sackler Library at Oxford University.  

That wraps up the news for this week!
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I'm Laura Pettigrew and I'll see you next week!